This Week's Reads

Kirk Read and Mark Haddon.

How I Learned to Snap: A Small-Town Coming-Out and Coming-of-Age Story

By Kirk Read (Penguin, $13) If anything is missing from this frank, plainspoken memoir of growing up gay in '80s Virginia, it's distance. The writing is tidy, the focus valuable, and the passions true, but author Kirk Read either doesn't want to address any of the bittersweet in his reflections, or the thirtysomething author hasn't yet stepped far enough away from his youth to fully consider it. Read has a real purity in conveying his hard-earned pride at having hacked his way through adolescence as an increasingly self-aware gay kid in Pat Robertson's Lexington, Va.; if he is, as he implies in the prologue, simply recounting all this to bolster the spirits of kindred young souls out there, he's reached his goal. Originally published in 2001 and now in paperback, the book presents a series of familiar but nonetheless empowering anecdotal sketches relating sexual discovery, the joys of Michael Stipe, and how a determined young gay boy can refute the crippling degradation that the word "faggot" is meant to inspire. Remembering his "out" high-school role model (the same one who taught him the force of the emphatic gay snap), Read recalls lovingly, "His dancing was a joyful explosion, the genesis of which is authentic pain. He danced so well with black girls because their dancing was also about escaping. It was about showing people they wouldn't let the world win." Too often, though, there's a bland sameness to Read's approach, one lacking an adult's wry perspective of howlet's face itprivate teen pain can often make you an insufferable little pain in the ass. Most of these recollections acknowledge what would seem to have been Read's sometimes grating neediness but don't explore that subtext. One reminiscence of his embattled dealings with Dad ends with, "That day, I learned about the tenuous relationship between saying what needs to be said and breaking my father's heart." The one big flaw here is that Read understands the former without articulating the melancholy complexities of the latter. STEVE WIECKING Kirk Read will read at Bailey-Coy Books (414 Broadway Ave. E., 206-323-8842), 7 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 14. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon (Doubleday, $22.95) Because the book has already been sold to Hollywood, and since it concerns an autistic 15-year-old boy who sets out to solve the murder of a neighbor's dog, I had every reason to dread this debut novel. I shudder to think of the inevitably sappy, egregiously heart-string-pulling Haley Joel Osment vehicle that's to comelike Rain Main with pimples and a downy moustache over sensitive, trembling lips. That may yet arrive; but thankfully, Incident's young English hero has no use or tolerance for easy multiplex emotionhe doesn't even understand it. "I find people confusing," he says. His autistic lack of affect makes people flat and inscrutable; he doesn't get their jokes, can't read their faces, misses all their nuances and inflections. All those deficiencies might seem to make Christopher the worst detective in the world (and in pursuit of a rather trivial crime). But he notices things, recording and categorizing them in a manner that opens up a whole different way of observing the world. His first-person accountbegun as a school project in the style of Sherlock Holmesis packed with diagrams, lists, and mathematical equations. "I see everything," he explains. Where others, stopping to pee years ago in a French farm field, would only register cows, Christopher breaks the scene down into 38 numbered components, including the exact day on which it occurred. (The chapters of Incident are even enumerated using only prime numbers, which are Christopher's favorite2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on up to 233.) Christopher loves white noise and hates metaphors, making him a bit of a machine in his odd quirks and balks and malfunctionings (which include occasional pants wetting and curling up on the floor in stressful situations and groaning for hours). When he travels alone from the quiet suburbs to the overwhelming disorder of London, he makes sense of the chaos by telling himself, "The people are like cows in a field." Just keep counting and observing. Previously the author (and illustrator) of several children's books, Haddon makes Incident rich in empathyas if to compensate for his hero's emotional shortcomings. He poignantly describes a dream in which Christopher finds kinship in a world populated only by machines like him: "And eventually there is no one left in the world except people who don't look at other people's faces. And they like being on their own and I hardly ever see them because they are like okapi in the jungle in the Congo, which are a kind of antelope and very shy and rare." I won't tell you whether Christopher solves his case (which leads to secrets within his own fractured family), but Incident is a rare book indeed, the best detective story I've read this year. BRIAN MILLER

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